A National Sample Survey report on ownership of assets has revealed that about 10% of Indians own over 50% of the total assets, with the skew greater in urban areas. The asset divide is the greatest in Delhi, with J&K being the lowest. This government survey falls more or less in line with reports prepared by NGOs and other agencies, which have stressed that while poverty is declining and growth opportunities have increased, the income and asset distribution is uneven. According to Forbes, the number of billionaires increased from 102 to 140 last year but the number of poor increased during the pandemic by about 75 million. A World Bank report has stated that while India accounts for 17.8% of the world’s population, it had 20.17% of the total number of people living in poverty in 2017. All these figures are stark reminders that income and asset accumulation are grossly imbalanced. This unequal data also plays out on the ground. This newspaper recently reported about how luxury, high-end hotels in popular hill resorts such as Srinagar, Gulmarg, Pahalgam, Manali, Shimla and Shillong were all overbooked during the summers while budget hotels were starved of tourist occupancy. The economic slowdown in recent years that was made worse by the Covid outbreak has badly affected budget travellers, with many giving up on holidays as they have become a luxury.
There is no denying that development has been more inclusive now. Healthcare, education and jobs have opened up for all sections of the people, irrespective of caste, creed or gender. Migration has also thrown up opportunities for the rural poor, particularly in terms of jobs. But it also cannot be denied that gross inequalities exist even 75 years after independence. Access to quality health services, schools and colleges are still heavily tilted in favour of the rich. This does not offer a level playing field and poses huge challenges for the Centre and policymakers. An unequal society already fractured along caste, religion and region can only breed and aggravate social tensions, which vested interests can easily exploit. There are enough mischief makers, anti-social elements and inimical forces out there to light the powder keg.